Robbie Short

The last time the Yale football team faced Columbia, the two teams had won a combined three games through seven weeks. In a contest that generated little fanfare, featuring 14 punts and five turnovers, the Elis claimed an unremarkable 31–23 victory.

Exactly one year later, however, Team 145 (5–1, 2–1 Ivy) is set to host the Lions (6–0, 3–0) under drastically different circumstances. After finishing last season with losing conference records, both teams find themselves at the center of a highly competitive race to the Ancient Eight crown. Columbia — long the laughingstock of Ivy League football — has enjoyed a meteoric rise to the top of the conference in its third season under the leadership of Al Bagnoli, who won nine conference titles at Penn. Similarly, Yale has bounced back remarkably after an underwhelming, injury-riddled 2016 campaign.

“[With] the structure of the league, it’s really hard to create any long-term team that’s just going to be up top all the time, because of the parity in recruiting,” head coach Tony Reno said. “The league is created to create parity. Fundamentally, [Columbia] made a commitment to being good in football. It started when they hired coach Bagnoli. They’ve got good players and they’ve been able to continue to improve and develop them.”

One of only four remaining undefeated teams in the Football Championship Subdivision, the Lions head into the Yale Bowl seeking their first 7–0 start since 1932. Despite a combined record of 9–51 over its previous six seasons, the Light Blue has claimed sole possession of first place in the Ivy League for the first time in school history. It has already clinched the program’s first winning season since 1996 and only its fourth dating back to 1963.

Columbia will look to extend a seven-game winning streak that dates back to last season when the team takes on the Bulldogs. A week ago, the streak looked to be in serious jeopardy as the Big Green, owners of four straight come-from-behind victories, threatened to take the lead with the clock winding down in Hanover. But on the final play of the game, defensive lineman Mike Hinton sacked Dartmouth quarterback Jack Heneghan, and the clock hit triple zeros with the Lions on top.

Bagnoli’s squad does not boast eye-popping numbers on offense or defense: The Lions rank as the third-best scoring offense and fifth-best scoring defense in the Ivy League. Still, the team has performed well when it matters most. In addition to the clutch sack in the final moments against Dartmouth, Columbia took the lead on its final drives in two conference victories this season.

Nevertheless, the Bulldogs will also come into Saturday confident in their late-game execution following a narrow victory over defending Ivy co-champion Penn.

“We’re worried about one game at a time,” wide receiver Christopher Williams-Lopez ’18 said. “One game only. I heard many people saying, after we lost to Dartmouth, that it’s going to be really hard to [win the] Ivy League championship. None of us were worried about that the Sunday after. We were all worried about the next game and winning that next game and then the game after that. The rest will take care of itself.”

For the third time this season, Yale will be forced to defend against a two-quarterback system, following similar scenarios against Dartmouth and Penn. Quarterback Anders Hill, who threw for three touchdowns against the Elis last season, is the Lions’ top passing option. The 6-foot-4 senior is second in the Ancient Eight in passing, having completed more than 66 percent of his throws for a combined 1,663 yards and 14 touchdowns so far in 2017.

However, Columbia also deploys quarterback Josh Bean in wildcat packages, specifically for short-yardage and goal-line scenarios. For a player with only 17 rushing attempts this season, Bean is second in the Ancient Eight in scoring with seven touchdowns and has yet to attempt a pass.

Columbia’s talented tandem of quarterbacks is bolstered by one of the most productive receiving corps in the Ivy League. Wide receivers Josh Wainwright and Ronald Smith II rank second and third in the conference in receiving yards per game, with each player averaging more than 120 yards per contest. Smith, who did not appear in the Lions’ victory over Dartmouth last week, terrorized the Bulldogs’ secondary for 144 yards and two touchdowns last season in Manhattan.

The pair of wideouts also has a knack for game-breaking plays, as Smith scored the game-winning touchdown on a 63-yard pass in the Lions’ 28–24 victory over Princeton, while Wainwright caught the decisive score in a 34–31 overtime triumph over Penn. While the Lions’ aerial attack will pose a formidable obstacle, the Yale defense is equipped to defend it on paper, sporting the third-best pass defense in the conference overall, as well as the top-ranked rush defense in the Ivy League.

“Whoever is on the field, everybody on the sideline and on the field has complete trust in each other,” cornerback Malcolm Dixon ’20 said. “There’s a really strong bond among the defensive players and in the different position groups. When we’re all on the field, we’re all just locked in. Obviously, we’re not perfect, but what I’ve noticed this year is that everybody’s just locked in on what they’re supposed to do, and they do it 110 percent.”

The turnover battle will also be extremely important against Columbia, especially on the heels of three lost fumbles against the Quakers. Reno said ball security has been a focus in practice this week, as Yale prepares to face a Lions’ defense that has forced eight fumbles in six games. Quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20 will also look to remain interception-free for the third straight game against an opposing secondary with seven interceptions on the season.

Offensively, the Bulldogs should be able to find success in the ground game, as it has all season. The Elis boast the second-most efficient rushing attack in the FCS, led by running backs Zane Dudek ’21 — one of the top rookies in the FCS this season — and Deshawn Salter ’18. Yale is averaging over 220 rushing yards per game, and will be matched up with a Lions rush defense ranking fifth in the Ivy League this season.

Despite the prolific run game, Yale is not a one-dimensional offense: It has rushed the third-fewest times in the Ancient Eight this season. The Rawlings-led passing attack, ranking third overall in the conference, will also play an important role on Saturday. Top option Williams-Lopez has recorded at least six catches or 80 yards in five of the six games.

Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. at the Yale Bowl this Saturday.

Won Jung | won.jung@yale.edu

Joey Kamm | joseph.kamm@yale.edu